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County defining wildland-urban interface, key to wildfire defense



By Bay Stephens EBS Staff Writer

BOZEMAN – Gallatin County is taking steps to update the Community Wildfire Protection Plan, focusing on defining the wildland-urban interface within its boundaries.

During a June 27 meeting at the Gallatin County Search and Rescue warehouse at the Bozeman fairgrounds, personnel representing organizations such as Gallatin County Planning and Community Development, the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, the U.S. Forest Service, Red Cross and Big Sky Fire Department decided to use the more austere-looking relative fire hazard model of those presented to the group to overlay on a map of the county’s manmade structures.

From these models, the group will begin a trial-and-error process of mapping the wilderness-urban interface for the Community Wildfire Protection Plan.

The wildland-urban interface—essentially where development backs up against wild vegetation—is a key component of the protection plan, and both are being updated this year alongside the county’s Hazard Mitigation Plan.

According to the Hazard Mitigation Act of 2000, states, counties and cities are required to have FEMA-approved mitigation plans, updated every five years to maintain eligibility for non-emergency federal funding. Project manager Michael Rotar of the consulting firm Respec said that, together, the wildland-urban interface and the CWPP are the centerpiece map and document, respectively, for leveraging funding from various federal and state sources for mitigation efforts.

Led by Rotar, the group discussed how to delineate the buffer between development and wildland. While the 2006 model used hardline buffers, leading to confusion for residents and developers, the group was interested in a graduated boundary, potentially implementing different types of buffers depending on fuel type, population density, development type and topography in a given area. How the buffer is defined affects Forest Service operations, fire mitigation efforts and development.

However, the definition of development is not universal. “That can be structures, that can be infrastructure—obviously powerlines, water facilities—it can be just watersheds themselves … if that water is collected and used for some municipal use,” Rotar said. Part of the group’s task ahead will be determining how Gallatin County will define development.

Rotar mentioned that their discussion of the wildland-urban interface was timely, referencing a recently released Headwaters Economics report which identified Gallatin County as having the third most homes built in wildfire hazard areas in the state, after Ravalli and Missoula counties. Houses in such areas are challenging for firefighters, increasing the risk and cost of keeping the flames at bay as they attempt to protect property.

“In 2017, nearly 3,000 Montana homes were within 1 mile of that year’s wildfires, which increased suppression costs by at least $25 million that year,” the report states.

One of the group’s intended outcomes of developing an updated wildland-urban interface model is to give the public a better idea of the risks they inherit when building on the edge of wildlands, and how they should actively mitigate fire hazard to decrease such risk.

Over the coming weeks, Rotar will have graphics prepared of the relative fire hazard model overlaid with a map of existing structures, then distribute it to the group members as a trial run to determine what an optimal approach to creating a buffer for the wildland-urban interface would look like.

Rotar said that they intend to have a draft of the combined Hazard Mitigation Plan, including the CWPP, by the end of the year, which will then be reviewed at the local and state levels before a FEMA review. He expects the plan to be adopted by June 2019.

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